Welcome To The New Golden Age of Music Videos
Posted by Adam Fairholm on September 4, 2014 in Original Content
Note: Portions of this article have been adapted from "Music Videos in the Digital World," a talk given by IMVDb at Sprockets Music Video Fest 2014.
On the track So Appalled from Kanye Wests 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, West has a warning for potential love interests: the day that you play me will be the same day MTV play videos. He caps it off with some clarification: that was a little joke, voila.
By 2010, Kanyes joke wasnt exactly breaking new ground. It was a shared go-to observation among those of a certain generation - remember when MTV used to actually stand for music television? Remember when MTV used to actually play music videos?
Rather than being indicative of some sort of failure on MTVs part, our shared joke was instead a testament to the insane popularity of a brand that had defined an art form. MTV and music videos had grown up hand in hand in the 1980s and 90s, and those two decades had delivered something almost too good to be true: a form of entertainment where there were no rules, starring our favorite musicians and featuring our favorite music. And in the corner of every video was that little MTV logo, reminding us all who was leading the revolution.
But as the cable landscape changed, MTV made changes as well. The network eased into it at first; Beavis and Butt-Head managed to catch a few videos between adventures, for instance. But soon tuning into MTV didn't just mean tuning in to see music videos, it meant tuning in to see The Tom Green Show, or The Real World, or Jackass - immensely popular shows that went beyond the commodity that music videos had become. By the time 2000 rolled around, MTV was programming 35% less music videos than they were in 1995, and the trend didnt show any signs of stopping.
This decline was especially dire seeing as there simply werent a lot of places to watch music videos other than cable TV at the start of the new millennium. In 2000 only 4% of US households had broadband internet, and video on the internet was in its infancy, featuring postage stamp sized resolutions and terrible sound. Readers familiar with this era of the internet may remember the joy of choosing your connection speed when trying to load a video on the internet (28k or 56k?). It was hardly an environment where a medium that relied on video and music living in harmony could even be viable, let alone thrive.
These are the prevailing factors that lead us into a lackluster half a decade for music videos, from 2000 to 2005. With a cable network bent on squeezing music video content into top 40-style shows like Total Request Live, music videos seemed to suffer from a sense that the venue was getting smaller and smaller. For every great video like Hey Ya, there are a hundred more that seem to be affected by a dark cloud hanging over their head - a sense that if this video isnt for a hugely popular track, maybe no one is watching.
Its not to say that no good music videos were made during this period, but the videos that could be considered classics are few and far between, and I believe these years are where we get the common perception that music videos are somehow past their prime. Compounding this was the fact that Apple's iPod made carrying thousands of songs in your pocket the novelty of the time, putting the emphasis on listening to music, not watching it. How many people could sing the chorus to Cry Me A River in 2004, and how many could tell you what the music video for that track was like?
In the middle of the decade, however, some miraculous things started to happen. First of all, broadband internet coverage in US suddenly jumped forward. From March 2005 to March 2006, the number of households in the US with broadband internet went from 60 million to 80 million - a 33% increase inside of one year. Then, right in the middle of the decade a website that would forever change video came online - youtube.com.
Its hard to overestimate the impact that YouTube had on the way video was distributed on the internet. Whereas before you needed to encode a video into an array of different formats and specs to be compatible with different systems, now YouTube seamlessly handled all of that. Upload your video, and it would take care of the technical stuff. All you needed to know was that YouTube videos worked pretty much everywhere, and to share a video all you needed to do was to take a little embed code and you could put your video pretty much anywhere on the internet.
YouTube took an experience that was fragmented and difficult, and packaged it into one fun, interesting website. People loved it, and as a result YouTube moved fast. Google snatched it up in 2006 for $1.65 billion, and by 2008 we had 480p video. In July 2009 we had 720p video. In November 2009 you could view 1080p - full HD video - on YouTube. Along the way they added something that would become a key but overlooked YouTube feature for music videos - full stereo sound. Miraculously, the internet suddenly had a video pipeline and infrastructure that was perfectly suited for short form clips, all we had to do was figure out something to do with it.
The initial answer to that big question was that all of us were going to fill that content void. For a few years in the mid 2000s, the internet was gripped with a sudden realization that maybe we were really meant to be the entertainers. For so long the means of distribution had been untouchable, and suddenly now the tables had turned and the spotlight was on us.
Out of this sentiment, the viral video was born - short, (mostly) amateur clips that took the seemingly mundane and turned it into entertainment. A cat slowly falling asleep or a dance that took us through the decades were the things that we were obsessed with - the exact opposite of anything glossy or produced. The attitude of the time had so fiercely turned in this direction that Time magazine named You as the person of the year in 2006.
Music videos jumped into the fray as well. In early 2005, an up-and-coming indie rock band named OK Go gathered in their lead singers backyard to film a low budget dance video they could use as the music video for song A Million Ways, the first single off of their upcoming second album. It would prove to be such a big hit that when it came time to promote another single, Here It Goes Again, they decided to film a similar low-fi clip, but this time to incorporate treadmills into the act.
The result was a staple on online video in the mid-2000s that usually simply went by the name the treadmill video. Its a near-perfect blend of the fanaticism of the time for low-fi novelty clips and a music video, and it worked as planned, attracting press and praise for the bands ingenuity.
But videos like Here It Goes Again really only tell part of the story of music videos at the dawn of YouTube. Early YouTube video popularity data is hard to come by because of the constant flux the site went through as a result of takedowns and purges, but by the time we have reliable data (2007), 7 of the top 10 YouTube videos are music videos. OK Go is definitely in the mix near the top 10, but the 2nd most watched video is Girlfriend by Avril Lavigne - a video that's as glossy as they come in music video terms.
The arrival of YouTube marks a staggeringly dramatic shift in how music videos were distributed - almost overnight. If you wanted to watch the video for Girlfriend by Avril Lavigne 20 times in a row, that was possible on YouTube. If you wanted to watch 20 different Avril Lavigne clips, YouTube could make that happen too. In a bafflingly large sea of content that people never had to wade through before, music videos stood out with familiar music, familiar faces, and the added bonus of being able to consume a format everyone was familiar with in a genuinely more convenient way. Despite the copyright mess and content turmoil that YouTube went through in the early years - music videos were simply popular.
And as YouTube starts to stabilize, we start to see better and better videos. In 2008 we get one for the first truly iconic videos of this new era - Beyonces Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)," a bizarrely addictive dance video that simply features Beyonce and two other women on a white cyc. The video was a massive hit, spawning parodies, an entire Saturday Night Live skit, and even one of the most notorious award show moments of all time, becoming one of the first music videos to enter the cultural conscious after YouTube.
In another bit of excellent timing, the music industry all the sudden sees a rise in a group of artists that will be instrumental in furthering music videos in the years ahead. From 2006 to 2009, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, and Rihanna all start enjoying early success and fame. Each of them put a heavy emphasis on image and music videos, filling the late 2000s with clips like Bad Romance (2009, Francis Lawrence), Waking Up In Vegas (2009, Joseph Kahn), and You Belong To Me (2009, Roman White) that helped create a new generation of music fans that saw music videos as not just performance clips, but pieces that had concepts and stories.
This is where we can pause to take a look at the incredible set of circumstances that music videos find themselves in entering the decade of the 2010s. For years, music videos had been seemingly doomed by the distribution channel that made them famous. When MTV and cable TV lost interest in distributing them, music videos had few places to turn.
At the start of 2010, however, the situation had been turned on its head. Armed with a slate of new, video-savvy pop stars, a massive audience, and a distribution system that would have been pure fantasy in the 90s, the stage was finally set for a new golden age of music videos.
One morning in early 2011, Wally Backer pulled into a McDonalds drive thru covered in body paint and wearing a bathrobe. He ordered some coffee to keep him alert for the drive home, ignoring some stares from the woman handing him his order.
Backer (better known as his stage name, Gotye) had just finished marathon music video shoot for his upcoming single Somebody That I Used To Know. For 3 solid days he had stood practically naked except for the sock/gaffers tape invention that covered his most personal bits.
On paper, the video for Somebody That I Used To Know sounds like a student art film: a nude Gotye is slowly painted - stop motion style - to blend in with an abstract painting background (a design inspired by the work of Gotyes father, artist Frank Backer). Halfway through, another painted person is revealed (Kimbra), and they have an emotional showdown.
In practice, though, the video is mesmerizing for its simplicity and restraint. Soon after it was released in July 2011, it became one of the cultural obsessions of the year despite the fact that it featured two artists that were virtually unknown to the public in most of the world ... singing in front of a painting.
When the parodies inevitably started pouring in (including one on SNL), they painstakingly mimicked Gotye and Kimbras movements down to the smallest detail. Not only did the best parodies imitate the videos sparse and distinct camera movements, but many parodies included Kimbras distinctive shoulder roll and even Gotyes deep breath as the Kimbra verse starts. Gotye, Kimbra, and director Natasha Pincus had created a truly modern iconic music video.
As popular and pervasive as Gotyes music video was, it wasnt even close to the most popular music video released in 2011, a red letter year for the format. Justin Biebers Ray Kay-directed Baby video was racking up hundreds of millions of plays on its way to being one of only two videos on YouTube to crack 1 billion views (so far). Jennifer Lopezs Taj-directed video for On The Floor featuring Pitbull was boosted by its premiere on American Idol and was on its way to becoming the current third most viewed music video of all time. Another 2011 release, Mickey Finnegan's video for "Party Rock Anthem" by LMFAO, was on its way to becoming the fourth most viewed music video of all time.
The turn from the 2000s to the 2010s had seen a number of changes that made this sort of environment possible. First of all, YouTube had half a decade under its belt at this point to grow not only technically but also organizationally. Early failed programs like YouTube Directors that aimed to curb copyright infringement and highlight original content on the site had given way to a maturing system of content partnerships and revenue sharing. YouTubes Content ID system had also been instrumental at cutting down on uploads featuring copyrighted music.
The big record labels had of course paid close attention to the rise of music videos on YouTube and decided their music videos needed a premium brand, resulting in the launch of Vevo.com in 2009, a joint venture between Universal Music Group (UMG), Google, Sony Music Entertainment (SME), and Abu Dhabi Media. Critics at the time wondered if Vevo even needed a website - Vevos brand was designed to single out and elevate the status of UMG and SME videos on YouTube and elsewhere, thereby allowing for Vevo to demand higher advertising rates than other YouTube content.
While the Vevo labels got higher ad rates, viewers got an implicit guarantee that the Vevo videos they were watching were the official and therefore most high quality versions of a video as long as it had the Vevo branding. For many artists with the most view counts, Vevo provided some sort of a recognizable system that made it simple for viewers to identify official content and official accounts - a major step forward and a way to maximize and consolidate views towards an official source.
In addition to YouTube stabilizing, music videos had also firmly crossed over into 1080p HD territory by the time the new decade rolled around. Bad Romance, released in 2009, was and still is only available in 480p. As consumers started to expect 1080p and high quality audio as a standard on cable TV, YouTube and music videos were able to deliver, and past mid 2010, a newly released music video almost certainly was available in 1080p.
The origins of the popularity of Gangnam Style have been debated, but one thing we know for sure is that by the time Katy Perry shared the video with her 25 million followers, Psys magnum opus was well on its way to becoming the most viewed video online of all time.
Psys label, YG Entertainment, had planned to boost the release of Gangnam Style by utilizing the robust network of K-Pop fans and blogs to spread early word of the video. Uploaded on July 15, 2012 and boosted early by the expected K-Pop fan support, by the end of the month T-Pain had tweeted about it, and US sites like Gawker and Reddit had begun to pick up on the video, starting an upward trend in views that didn't slow down for months.
But even though there are milestones along the way, the truth is there was no hockey stick graph that revealed a catalyst for the massive popularity of Gangnam Style, it was instead a classic snowball effect, bolstered by a nonstop onslaught of media coverage from tweets and shares to appearances on US talk shows to old fashioned word of mouth.
Its also hard to really overestimate the popularity of Gangnam Style. Currently sitting at over 2 billion views, the closest video to it - Justin Biebers Baby - is 1 billion views behind it. It has no peer as the greatest viral video of all time, and most importantly, its a music video. Gangnam Style provided a crucial piece that all the views for Jennifer Lopez or Shakira couldnt do: it made music videos a spectacle again.
It was a subtle change, but artists soon began picking up on it and capitalizing on it. Miley Cyrus was already a YouTube music video star thanks to the popularity of her videos from 2007 to 2010, but she managed to elevate herself to the level of icon in 2013 with her videos for We Cant Stop (2013, Diane Martel) and Wrecking Ball (2013, Terry Richardson). Even if live TV appearances sometimes overshadowed the videos themselves in outrageousness, Miley made sure the music videos were the thesis statement.
As a result of all these shifts and music video milestones, the importance of music videos has grown and grown over the last several years. We're now at the point where an artist like Taylor Swift will reveal a brand new track and music video simultaneously like she did for "Shake It Off" (2014, Mark Romanek), as if we won't understand the song without seeing the video as well. There are also songs that seem to exist just to have a music video video, like Nicki Minaj's "Anaconda" (2014, Colin Tilley).
And at the same time as music videos have become so important to an artists image, a new group of directors, producers, companies, and other professionals have stepped up to make those videos. While long-established directors like Joseph Kahn, Mark Romanek, Director X (formerly Little X), Sophie Muller, and Diane Martel are making some of their best work in the current music video era, new talent like Daniels (Turn Down For What), Joel Kefali (This Is How We Do), Emily Kai Bock (Afterlife), Fleur & Manu (Pursuit), Hiro Murai (Chum), and many, many others have stepped up to stretch the limits of what can be done with the new freedom that the current era of music videos affords.
As we draw nearer to the end of 2014, its time to call this current decade what it's become: a new golden age of music videos.
The internet has changed almost every aspect of modern media, but there is perhaps no other format that has gone through the sea change that music videos have over the past 15 years. From a format that was synonymous with a specific brand, music videos have broken free and thrived on a new distribution technology that almost seems to have been designed with them in mind.
The sheer popularity of music videos today stands as the best argument for the resurgence of the format. As it currently stands, music videos account for 29 out of the top 30 YouTube videos of all time (yes, were counting the Gummy Bear Song as a music video - you can buy it on iTunes!). Charlie Bit My Finger - Again! is the only relic of the early YouTube days that has managed to hang around.
The first golden age of music videos was marked by a new format and a new audience creating an environment where it seemed like anything was possible. In 2014, after years of uncertainty and obstacles, that environment of limitless possibilities and a massive, captive audience is here again. We're excited for what music videos have to show them next.
Adam Fairholm is the co-founder and lead developer of IMVDb. You can find him on twitter at @adamfairholm.
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